Saint Patrick apparently arrived in Ireland in the year 432 to convert the Pagan population of the Emerald Isle to Christianity. Never mind that he was not the only one doing that, and not even the first (parts of Ireland, especially in the South, were already Christian before he ever set foot on the island), he did succeed in converting many Celts by first converting their kings. And what the ruler believed that became overnight the doctrine in his kingdom. Such were the rather blunt laws in fifth century Ireland.
During the Middle Ages the Church declared Patrick patron saint of Ireland, and Waterford-born Franciscan friar Luke Wadding (1588-1657) was instrumental in establishing his feast as official church holiday. It became the National Day of the Republic of Ireland, but only since the 1990s it is rapidly becoming a global event as well (and an ever larger festival in Ireland, now extending over five days in Dublin).
Our government, inspired by the sudden economic boom known as "Celtic Tiger", is now promoting Irishness, Irish culture and Irish products around the world in similar fashion as Patrick promoted Christianity. Practically the entire cabinet, plus most of the junior ministers, travel abroad for St. Patrick's Day, in order to bring everything Irish to everyone. St. Patrick's Day has become a huge commercial event that makes millions for everyone and every industry that can connect with it.
Every year new countries and cities join the celebration, encouraged by the our government and supported by numerous Irish ex-pats one can find now everywhere.
This year it is the turn of China to jump onto the green band wagon, and since a single day seems no longer enough to celebrate Irishness, Beijing laid on a five-day Patrick's festival (pictured above), copying Dublin.
Although the number of Irish ex-pats in China is small and St. Patrick is as alien to Chinese culture as Moses, Jesus or Mohammed, money talks and anything that brings in more is now very welcome in the officially still Communist People's Republic of China.
There is also an ever growing number of Chinese living, working and studying in Ireland. In fact Chinese students are now an important source of income for Ireland, and China gets in return well-educated academics who speak good English.
One should also not forget the fact that this is the year of the Beijing Olympics, a major project for the Chinese government and used to strengthen ties with western countries.
Since the Chinese leadership decided to allow Irish ex-pats (and anyone else who likes this sort of thing) to roam the streets of Beijing, clad in green, wearing leprechaun hats and getting drunk on the omni-present Guinness, the Irish government felt obliged to dispatch one of its ministers as well to grace the event with his dignified presence. As all cabinet members were already booked for similar missions to places where there are more Irish and St. Patrick's Day is established for longer, the Beijing job was given to Dick Roche, Fianna Fáil TD for Wicklow and Minister of State (in both the Taoiseach's Department and the Department for Foreign Affairs) with special responsibility for Europe. It is rather typical of our government to send the Minister for Europe to a minor fun event in China, while the country is preparing for another EU referendum and there are major matters discussed in the various EU councils.
And yes, a minor fun event it was, and not more. Less generous people might call it a silly farce on which the Irish taxpayer spent a lot of money. And they would be right, too. Obviously neither Mr. Roche nor anyone else in the government bothered to study Chinese culture, mentality and general political practice. Marches and demonstrations are neither popular nor encouraged in China, unless they are organised, orchestrated and tightly controlled by the Communist Party or the state authorities.
And as much as the Chinese try to make "good weather" in the run-up period to the Olympic Games, they remain inflexible bureaucrats who will have things their way - or not at all. The small Irish ex-pat group in Beijing which organised the festival with massive sponsorship from the Irish government, Enterprise Ireland and several other organisations and public bodies, was told the parade down Wangfujing Lu - Beijing's major pedestrianised shopping street - could not exceed 200 people.
So Paddy Taxpayer financed the official trip of a minister to China, to join a bunch of ex-pats going wild for a week and promoting the stereotype that being Irish means oafish, disorganised, noisy and drunk. But it was not just Mr. Roche alone who flew to China. A whole delegation went with him on this very special mission, including blonde Irish dancing girls in embroidered green dresses, government officials and civil servants, representatives of Irish companies, some journalists and a group of "normal" people who went just for the craic.
Some of them came from the Christian Brothers' College in Cork, presumably brought along to tell the Chinese that there is a "People's Republic" in Ireland as well. Taxpayers' money well spent, wouldn't you agree?
In the end the embassy managed to soften up the Chinese bureaucrats. So when China's first ever St. Patrick's Day parade took off on Sunday to start the Irish festival, there were close to 1000 people, a truly motley crew if there ever was one. A satirical caricaturist, out to make the Irish look like bumbling fools, could not have done a better job. It was one of the tackiest events of its kind and included the most ridiculous looking impersonation of Saint Patrick I have ever seen. His alb was way too short, reaching just below the knees, and what was meant to represent a Celtic cross on the chasuble looked more like the targeting cross-hairs of a rifle. (see photo above) Well, we cannot offend the secular Chinese by displaying too many Christian symbols, can we?
To make things worse, the fellow posing as St. Patrick sported the most unreal and idiotic looking false beard ever seen on a man. Not even the tackiest of tacky "Santa" impersonators would sink that low in his choice of fake facial hair!
There was no interaction between marchers and ordinary Chinese people, most of whom had not the slightest idea what was going on. Shoppers and passers-by looked bewildered at the semi-costumed crowd walking down the street, led by a Scottish (!!!) piper and very closely watched and shadowed by about 200 uniformed policemen who did not really know what to do and how to behave towards the "green fools" either.
Yes, all the Paddy's Day friendship and peaceful intentions did not make the Chinese authorities take any risks or even a single chance.
To Chinese minds, formed for 25 centuries by the austere and principled ways of Confucianism and sharpened by now nearly 60 years of Communism, the whole idea of a nation going silly, noisy and getting drunk to celebrate its special greatness is just not comprehensible. Something very odd from the other side of China's Great Wall, to say the least.
Not even the special personal appearance of Ireland's Minister of State for Europe made any impression on the Chinese. His presence only added plain-clothed secret policemen to the 200 already there in uniform. And by the looks of it, Mr. Roche did not enjoy the experience much either, despite several desperate attempts to smile at everyone.
His very smart and rather serious looking black suit was lightened up by a brightly-green tie, but since that seemed not to be enough Irish green for the occasion, the minister also wore a posh lime-green scarf, almost looking like a priest's stole. (see photo below)
Being not a tall man, Dick Roche looked more like a leprechaun missing his hat than the representative of the Irish government. It is not known what the Chinese thought of the rather sad and ridiculous spectacle, but I imagine it did not enhance our nation's image in the Far East.
The parade itself probably qualifies for the Guinness Book of Records in several categories: Not only as the first staged in China and the most tacky, but also as the shortest St. Patrick's Day parade ever. It started in front of the foreign language bookshop on Wangfujing Lu and marched down circa 150 metres to the Oriental Plaza, where it turned around - and ended, still closely watched by 200 uniformed policemen (and who knows how many others in plain cloth). And 1.33 policemen for each metre of the way must also be a record, I am sure.
Apart from his participation in this truly memorable event, the Minister of State for Europe also had meetings and talks with representatives of the Chinese government. Though they took place behind closed doors, it can be assumed that they were mostly about trade and tourism, the two subjects Irish ministers are sent abroad to promote on St. Patrick's Day. However, there was a much more important matter an Irish minister - and especially one from the Department of Foreign Affairs - could and should have raised with his Chinese hosts. While a few hundred Irish wearing green costumes were allowed a heavily supervised walk in central Beijing, thousands of red-robed Buddhist monks were demonstrating in Lhasa, the capital city of Chinese-occupied Tibet, against the Chinese government and its oppression of traditional Tibetan culture. The monks, inspired by western ideas of freedom and liberty, were attacked by Chinese soldiers and police, beaten and shot at. The inofficial number of dead Tibetan civilians stands at about 100 now, but the true figure of casualties could well be larger.
When Dick Roche was asked by an RTÉ reporter in Beijing if he had mentioned the matter of Tibet to his Chinese hosts, the minister declared that he had not, because "this is not what we are here for". Well, well, so that's it then: As long as some Irish ex-pats can fool around in Beijing and have their craic, we don't give a hoot for human rights and do not care for those thousands of monks, nor for the Tibetan people who live under Chinese oppression for nearly fifty years! This is how Ireland is represented abroad, as a paradise for bumbling fools, not the slightest bit interested in real matters such as political clout and human rights.
Shame on you, Mr. Roche, for kowtowing so cowardly to the Chinese! Your silence in Beijing speaks a lot louder than anything you ever said or will say in future. And it will be remembered much longer than the silly parade you led in China.
But maybe we should not be too surprised by the minister's lack of political spine and moral fibre. This is the same Dick Roche who - as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government - messed up the electoral register. And he is also personally responsible for the M 3 project going through the Skryne Valley and destroying the Hill of Tara.
In fact the very last thing he did in this position - before being demoted by Bertie Ahern to junior ministerial rank - was the signing of the extremely controversial building orders for the M 3. And now, when he is back from China, Mr. Roche will try to make us vote for the Lisbon Treaty. Well, we'll see about that...
The Emerald Islander